Presidential elections were held in Nigeria in February this year. The ruling party’s Bola Tinubu won with only 10% of registered voters. Nigerian socialist and activist Alex Batubo argues that while Tinubu will just bring more of the same, the Nigerian workers’ movement can break through the country’s impasse.

Rally for the Nigerian elections in 2015. Photo: Heinrich Böll-Stiftung.

The context

Military dictatorship in Nigeria ended in 1999 with a presidential election that marked the start of the Fourth Republic. Since then, vast wealth has been gained from oil extraction and a diversified GDP has at least tripled. However, that money has been channelled into the accounts of a small minority. The majority are poorer than they were under the military regime. Public healthcare and education are among the lowest quality in Africa, and perhaps half the population doesn’t have access to electricity or safe drinking water. 

What have politicians been doing since 1999? The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) held power from 1999 until 2015, during which time corruption was rampant and Nigeria’s elite consolidated their super rich status. In 2015, the All Progressives Congress (APC) came to power with Muhammadu Buhari as president, elected on a ticket to ‘reduce corruption and use the money to adequately fund public health and education.’ In the last eight years, corruption and poverty have only increased, and public spending on education has been cut by half. The newly elected president Bola Tinubu is also in the APC and his presidency does not bode well for those who want to see change.

But Tinubu only received the votes of 10% of those registered to vote (36% of voter turnout). His oppositions were the PDP’s Atiku Abubakar (29% of voter turnout), and the Labour Party’s Peter Obi (25%). It’s been alleged the election was rigged but either way, only a third of Nigerian people turned out to vote, one factor being a lack of faith in change through electoral means. Although the Labour Party was formed by trade unions, the party does not consistently support the National Labour Congress (NLC), which is the federation for the trade unions. For instance, Peter Obi did not publicly back the NLC’s Charter of Worker Demands. In turn, the NLC leadership in Lagos supported the APC in the February election. Although a million people took to the streets in multiple rallies in support of Peter Obi, including many young people, he remains a business tycoon and supporter of neoliberalism. As in Britain, the Labour Party’s representation of labour’s interests is only in name. 

There have been many strikes, and even general strikes, across the last twenty years, but they are tightly controlled by the trade union bureaucracy. The combination of top-down leadership, collusion with government, and the absence of an organised rand-and-file have meant that the strikes consistently fail to win demands. But an organised rank-and-file movement is exactly what’s necessary to turn the page of corruption and exploitation around.

Trade Union unity and solidarity can reverse our suffering

After poorly managed elections and a result that is disappointing for many, we need to continue the struggle where the working class is strongest: work place / trade unions. Elections are important, but they are dominated by money and coverage in the mass media, including television, radio and the newspapers. These are all owned by the rich elite. This makes it difficult for the socialist voice to be heard. In contrast, it is the working class who are members of the trade unions. When they are organised effectively we have massive collective power and we can overturn the unpopular policies of any government.

As a minimum we need to campaign for a re-run in all polling units with problems, but also crucially we need pressure from the trade unions to address the key economic constraints that we all face. We need to start with an NLC victory in their indefinite general strike that started in Abia State on Monday.

As Socialist Labour said before the elections

“The next president will attempt to impose higher fuel prices, higher inflation, unemployment rates, taxes, school fees, and electric tariffs. The Government will continue strive to impose its “No work No pay” policy and postpone any increase in the minimum wage. We need to struggle against these attacks in order to survive. 

“We face a series of continued attacks. We need to unite and encourage the new leadership of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to lead action and to provide effective solidarity action where workers take action.”

Now, more than ever, we need an active trade union movement to enable the mass of labouring people to protect themselves from the currency crisis, fuel price increases and to immediately campaign for an increased minimum wage. 

We all face hardship and frustrations with the continuing currency crisis. This is particularly the case for those working in the informal sector who do not have bank accounts. This crisis could be ended in a few days if the old N1,000 and N500 notes were made legal tender until the end of the year and were to be re-issued by the Central Bank. 

This crisis came after months of fuel shortages when prices rose to at least twice the previous official price of N165. This led to huge increases in the cost of transport so that many of us can now hardly afford to travel to work. We need the official price of fuel to be enforced and for the NNPC to maintain adequate supplies of fuel. 

These issues have compounded the rate of inflation, officially at above 20%, but many prices like those for kerosene, gas, bread etc have doubled over the last year or so. The minimum wage was last increased nearly for years ago. Over this period the costs we face have at least doubled. 

Oxfam says that by international standards the minimum wage in Nigeria should be at least N100,000 (£120) a month and then increased every year. The current minimum wage is N30,000 per month (£36), and has not been increased since 2019. The International Labour Office (ILO) says most countries increase their minimum wage every year, especially when inflation is high. 

The Federal and state governments have plenty of money as their FAAC oil money allocations last year were the highest since 2013. And yet many states did not pay their salaries and pensions on time. What will happen in the coming months when crude oil income is expected to fall? Only firm trade union action can prevent our further suffering. 

The NLC was organising a crucial battle in Abia State. As in a number of other states, the workers in Abia State have over six months of salary arrears and the 2019 minimum wage has not been fully implemented. Pensioners also suffer non-payment of their pensions. This was a crucial first struggle of the new NLC leadership to send a clear message to the new government. The settlement is a step forward, but there appear to be a number of loose ends, especially perhaps over the minimum wage arrears and the salary arrears for the state university that are not mentioned in the settlement.

We need maximum solidarity with workers on strike and unity in action of all trade unions and their federations, the NLC and TUC. 

At this crucial time we need the trade union leaders to remain resolute and to lead us to victory. We cannot afford further attacks on our living standards. We need all trade unions and their branches to send messages of support to the NLC and striking workers. NLC action can provide a focus for united working class action. This can help to undermine any moves to ethnic based factionalism and help to reverse the decline in our living standards.


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